This is a guest post by Emily Holland, an Assistant Professor in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College & Hadas Aron, a Faculty Fellow at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU.
This week’s violent takeover of the Capitol Building has fueled the ongoing debate on the future of American democracy. For several years analysts have argued that the United States is undergoing the same process of de-democratization as countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. However, the comparison to European populist de-democratization is misleading. The difference between Trump and European counterparts is that the latter do not rely on post-election violence to hold onto power, instead they rig the system long before the election. This week’s events demonstrate what is at stake for American democracy. Unlike in European countries, the elimination of checks and balances is not the main concern. The real danger for the United States is out of control anti-system political violence that brings to a boiling point polarization and racial tensions.
Democratic breakdown or decline in places like Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and Poland, has inspired theories on how democracies die, comparing the United States to failing democracies around the world. But in these countries, populist insurrection is far more subtle [and effective] than the attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill. Populist leaders have successfully transformed political institutions, concentrated political power, broke down opposition, and dismantled democracy, with little overt violence and often without large-scale election fraud. Trump also attempted these strategies, but mostly failed because of the dispersed power structure of the United States, and his own incompetence.
A couple of years ago, I conducted a Gary Steyngart-esque experiment and watched Russian TV for a day, to find out in what kind of information bubble a regular Russian person lives. This year, I can’t use the remote because I bit all my nails during the American election week, but also the borders are closed, so both Russia and a Russian TV are beyond my reach. Never fear, I fired up Ye olde Tube to see what’s happening with the American elections in the Russian media.
Let’s flip to one of the most odious guys on Channel Two – Dimitry Kiselyov, aka “let’s burn gays’ hearts”. His Sunday evening program’s segment on the American elections was called ominously “Pulp Fiction” (like the Tarantino movie). Kiselyov accused the American elections right off the bat to have a criminal feel to them, where “the majority of mail-in ballots are miraculously for Biden”. According to Kiselyov, Trump was winning in 48 states on election day, but then suddenly was missing just a couple of thousands of votes to win. Mail-in voting can “allow fraud”: “dead souls” registered to vote and over 100% voting registration. Kiselyov continued to lie that it’s possible to come and vote without an ID and vote twice, and some precincts use “voting machines where you just press a button and it’s impossible to tally the votes at all”. Kiselyov’s main evidence (apart from the right-wing “judicial watch”) is Trump’s own statements and the fact that social media started marking his tweets and posts as potential misinformation. Kiselyov was particularly incensed that major news networks “shut his mouth” when Trump tried to claim victory during his address in the briefing room.
This is a guest post from Ryan Beasley, Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews, with research interests in political psychology and foreign policy: Juliet Kaarbo, Professor at the University of Edinburgh, who works on personalities, parliaments and parties in foreign policy; and Consuelo Thiers (Twitter @Consuelothiers), a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, who is completing her doctorate on beliefs and emotions in enduring rivalries.
For those of us who study leaders’ personalities and how they affect their actions while in power, President Trump has really been a blessing, if well-disguised. For many of his opponents, turning a corner on the Trump Presidency is not just about changing his policies but also quieting his persona, removing the centre-stage megaphone of political office from the hands of a man feverishly keen to use it (even when actually feverish). The gregarious and agreeable Joe Biden – perhaps average, risk-averse, and vanilla to his detractors – will surely be different. We wanted to be sure.
Last night’s debate might go down as one of the greatest in recent memory, and I am prepared to die on that hill. It was ugly. But it was also raw, unfiltered, and honest. It was thin on policy substance which is why I think the majority of my Twitter feed thought it was a shitshow.
A few things stood out which I think are worth mentioning, even on an IR blog. The performances last night got me thinking a lot about game theory. I am not a game theorist, and if I were, I would not subject you to a model of this year’s electoral strategy by Teams Trump and Biden. (I doubt the game theorists could even pull it off.)
Last week, President Donald Trump threatened to permanently cut US funding to the World Health Organization and eventually leave the institution. The opening salvo of Trump’s war against the United Nations agency in charge of global public health came a month ago, when the American president first stopped paying US dues. To many, Trump’s escalating threats to the very organization tasked with monitoring, evaluating, and communicating global health risks during the coronavirus pandemic is equivalent to dismissing the generals on the way into battle. The move has left the United States further isolated in the international arena, with key European allies declaring their support of the UN agency.
Trump maintains that the WHO’s response during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis justified his unprecedented move. The WHO, he claims, failed to acknowledge reports of the virus out of Wuhan, China in late 2019 even though there was yet to be substantiated evidence to the effect. Rather, the WHO began monitoring the situation in the Chinese province once the first public reports about a novel coronavirus surfaced and issued early guidance about contact protection shortly after the first of the year. In his letter breaking up with the organization, Trump also accused the international organization of showering praise on China and accepting its coronavirus-related data without question. However, this charge is not based on evidence and, given Trump’s own approval of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s response to the pandemic, rings hollow.
The threat to halt funding permanently to the world’s pre-eminent public health agency during a public health crisis appears highly reckless. Trump’s actions, however, are more strategic than they first seem.
This is a guest post by Richard W. Maass, an Associate Professor at the University of Evansville. His research focuses on international security, US foreign policy, terrorism, and diplomatic history. He has a forthcoming book on how democracy and xenophobia limited US territorial expansion (Cornell UP, May 2020).
Warning! According to the law that the Russian parliament passed yesterday, this post might need to be prefaced with a disclaimer that the following text has been compiled by a foreign agent. An individual can be labeled as a “foreign agent” in Russia if they (1) distribute information, and (2) receive funds from sources outside Russia. I am ticking both boxes here, even as an academic working at a university, and the law intentionally left the “information spreading” extremely broad: you can literally post something on social media. It would be up for the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to decide who receives a “foreign agent” label. A specific procedure is yet to be established, but if an individual is deemed a foreign agent, they will have to create their own legally registered organization within a month in order to interact as a foreign agent with the Russian government.
This iteration of the law comes as a sequel to the ‘amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations’ of 2012 that obliged Russian organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ in case they were involved in ‘political activity’ (even through funding) and received funding from abroad. It has affected by now a large number of my colleagues, including the Sova Center for the Monitoring of Xenophobia that was forced to pay a large fine. As one of the defenders of the law stated on prime-time television and in line with the usual liberal anti-American narrative and a conspiracy theme:
The purpose of the law is to reduce the influence of foreign countries on the policy. Thus, our law is much softer than the one in the US […]. And at the same time if you engage in politics, that means fighting for power, you must inform the Russian citizens. Those who oppose this law, do this for two reasons: the first – or they want to seize power in Russia in the interests of foreign states and against the interests of Russia, and the second – they get Western money and want to steal it.
Duma Member Sergey Markov
The law on foreign agents was passed in the same session with more restrictive legislation on public rallies undoubtedly taking the cue from Vladimir Putin who remarked during his Direct Line in December 2011 that he was sure that some of the people went to the protest ‘in a foreign country’s interest and for a foreign country’s money’. The notorious usage of the singular as opposed to the plural was telling – the country in question was not named, but it was clear for the audience that he was talking about the only country that could afford financing a protest in Russia, the USA.
Pervyi Kanal, Russian state TV, responded to the Direct Line with lightning speed and three days later on Sunday prime time news there was a segment on ‘the history and spread of coloured revolutions’, where it was stated that there is a special American think tank that is active in countries where the US ‘is interested in changing the regime’. One of the Pervyi Kanal’s experts emphasized that ‘there are many symbols and concepts, but the aim and the sponsor is the same – the USA’ (Pervyi Kanal, 18 December 2011). Thus, the Soviet frame about American dollars buying instability and wars was time and again re-articulated both by state officials and TV personalities.
Why pass this new foreign agent law now, one might ask? After all, who doesn’t like that goofball Donald and who is afraid of that barely competent State Department that can’t even fact check a TIME magazine cover? According to a Russian MP, it’s because of Maria Butina’s case:
Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under a similar law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market […]. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these quite often in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.
Duma’s Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia party)
For starters, of course the American law is not that similar. Individual foreign agents in the US are supposed to be taking action in the interest of a foreign government or lobbying politicians. You know, like the convicted Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. But lobbying effort is completely absent from the Russian law. While Butina was portrayed as another victim of “deep state” elite battles that ravage the American establishment, with the impeachment hearings kicking into high gear, who knows who will be the next President in the US and what kind of cookies the next State Department is going to distribute in Russia? In the meantime, “sovereign internet” is coming along and the laws are ready.
You never know when IR is going to bite you in the ass. One minute you are reading a children’s nursery rhyme and the other you realize that the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Ms. Zakharova read it too, but decided to use it in foreign policy discourse. The rhyme in question is by a Soviet children’s writer Samuel Marshak, a Soviet Dr. Seuss, if you will:
stand too close to me
tiger, not a pussy
Yes, pussy has the same Russian translation and it has both meanings, the one that Marshak used back in the day denoted just a cat, but Ms. Zakharova built a whole Facebook post around the double entendre. The photograph above featured Ms. Zakharova in boxing gloves and the headline read “Don’t you stand too close to me, I’m a boxer, not only pussy”. The comments to the post ranged between “yes, show those stupid Americans what we are made out of” to pearl-clutching about the use of the word “pussy” to questions whether Ms. Zakharova would attend the protests in Moscow “with the people”. Just so you know, she was planning to stay at home “with the people”.
It’s not the first time that Ms. Zakharova posted something controversial. As a woman in a very male dominated profession (at least, in Russia), her posts and statements often feature metaphors that are not always deemed becoming of a diplomatic protocol – at least not something that I was taught to be appropriate at the same university Ms. Zakharova attended. Back in the day, professors at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (happy birthday, alma mater!), the Soviet and Russian diplomatic talent hotbed, would praise the eloquence and adherence to etiquette of the Russian civil servant upper class. Boys would be sent back home if they were not clean-shaven or didn’t wear a tie and a suit for some classes. And girls… well, we were told at the chair for diplomacy that future ambassadors need educated wives so why the hell not let women study here.
Enter Ms. Zakharova, one of the most high-ranking female diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry. She is obviously good at her job of “showing the Americans what we are made out of” and she can dance a fire “Kalinka” away. She is quick on her feet rebutting foreign press at Foreign Ministry Press briefings and has a killer emoji game on social media. Her whataboutist rhetoric is perfection and she can offer it in multiple languages, including Chinese. So, what if Ms. Zakharova talks about meetings that never happened and dabbles in anti-Semitism? In this day and age, who doesn’t?
This week has seen a number of key events and crises in
global politics that have made crystal clear once again the careening mess that
is US foreign policy under the current administration. The Trump administration
has no real overarching strategy—the argument that allies in Europe and
elsewhere should bear more of the costs of their defense was not articulated as
part of any coherent broader vision—and gutting of the diplomatic corps has
left the US devoid of expertise and key actors to confront crises when they
First, there were two big stories around nuclear powers this
week. The biggest being India and Pakistan’s clashes, which came on the heels
of a suicide bombing attack on Indian troops in Kashmir by a local man that was
claimed by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. In a scenario that Toby Dalton and George Perkovichworried
about and predicted, an air raid by India into Pakistan resulted in bombs
dropped on an open field, with two Indian planes apparently shot down, and one
airman captured. Pakistan responded with a raid of its own across the Line of
Control in Kashmir, sparking fears
of escalation between the two nuclear-armed states. The Indian raid marked
the first known aerial attack by one nuclear power on the territory of another.
Among IR scholars, research on the role of individuals in world
politics, or the “first image,” has languished for three decades. With the
dominance of structural and rationalist approaches in the late 20th century,
combined with skepticism individuals can be studied in a systematic, rather
than idiosyncratic way, the first image has largely been neglected. Data out of
the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP)
project at William & Mary illustrate the point. Over the last thirty-five
years or so, only 12.5%
of the articles analyzed, in a wide-swath of IR journals, featured any
engagement with the first image:
Figure 1: Proportion of scholarly journal articles utilizing each image approach (Grouped by year)
Following the Trump administration is really tiring. And I’m not talking about the last two years — it’s a challenge to survive single weeks of their news cycle. Hell, a Friday afternoon is already taxing. That is why over here in Europe we’re very careful about checking headlines and Twitter Friday night. The outrage at the next fecal storm would keep you up better than a crying baby/ thoughts on the upcoming semester/deadline [insert your trigger]. The White House scandal diapering, however, is extremely predictable. No collusion, Hillary, fake news, Fox and friends, random capitalization and an abundance of grammatical mistakes, which are the typical ingredients making up the diarrhea stream, which flows unabated from the presidential Twitter account. Back in April, Morning Joe even came up with the presidential Twitter bingo but they didn’t do so well. So here is the ultimate Trump tweet bingo card that is based on his last 3000 tweets, which – from his regal, gold-plated porcelain throne – he unceremoniously defecated onto the global public space.
In the academic community, the equivalent to ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ is ‘peer-review or it doesn’t count’. That’s why I decided to wait until I get some validation on the hypothesis about the Trump win that I was working on. The full paper is coming out in International Relations journal and this a (relatively) short teaser. Don’t worry, there is a Russian angle, just probably not the one you would expect. Continue reading
Any woman would tell you that. What matters is what you do with it and whether you know how to use it. Whatever Brobdingnagian thing you’ve got going on there, it’s way more important to have a game plan and understand the sweet spots you need to target. Otherwise, both parties may come away less than satisfied from the encounter.
I am talking, of course, about the nuclear arsenal size and the ever-lasting dick-measuring contest that is international politics. After the ridiculous Trump tweet that Kim John Un’s nuclear button is smaller and less powerful than that of #45, IR Twitter was quick to point out Carol Cohn’s seminal “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” article that discussed exactly that. That the world of arms race is essentially a world of phallic worship and missile envy, replete with “penetration aids”, “thrust capabilities” and “vertical erector launchers”. Who knew that a presidential candidate who mentions the size of his penis during a primary debate would actually bring it up during an international nuclear stand-off?!
Another piece that comes to (my) mind is the book by Stephen Ducat “The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity”. As he observed, the ‘wimp factor’, i.e., the possibility of coming off as too feminine in politics is a major fear in many cultures, spanning from ancient Greece to modern United States. In a culture with a generalized ethos that equates penetration with domination, political hierarchy is often built along the same lines that glorifies ‘real men’ ‘with balls’ hence denigrating femininity and non-cis-gendered males and females. The wimp factor is especially relevant for global politics built on notions of hierarchy, and is often expressed in terms of gender, which favors the male, dominant position.
For Russia watchers Christmas always comes early (or Hanukkah comes right on time!) when Putin gives his annual presser in mid-December to the journalists from Russia and around the world. This year was no exception, and Putin provided an almost 4-hour spectacle of economic indicator juggling, question evading and what looked like battling the flu. Even devoted supporters noticed that Putin was not on top of his game that day. He had to constantly clear the throat and looked like he had fever.
There was something for everyone. Putin came out against abortion ban and spun a conspiracy theory about the Olympic doping scandal. Accused the US of North Korean missile program development and encouraged rotation of governmental cadres. Explained the rationale behind a possible retirement age increase and advised the head of Rosneft Sechin to show up to court when he is subpoenaed. Many bloggers and mass media outlets have devised several versions of Putin Presser bingo, because every year there seems to be the same number of shticks that come up. These include drinking from a cup with a lid, making a joke – this year a particularly crass one, – providing reassuring mumbo-jumbo about Russian economic growth and an expected tough question from a Ukrainian journalist.
Let’s start with the last one. Questions from UNIAN journalist Tsymbayuk are a rare aberration from the mainstream discourse on the Ukraine crisis in Russia (this time they were met with boos and “provocation” outcries). He asked whether Putin was planning to exchange prisoners of war and reminded that Russia and Ukraine were not one country. Putin had a long comeback arguing that the accent-free Russian of the journalist was already a sign that the countries occupied the same mental space. After that followed quite a long history lesson riddled some historical inaccuracies and an emphasis on the same Christian foundation of the two countries that make up one nation. Later, Putin also quipped about the scandal provoked by the former Georgian President and ex Odessa governor Saakashvili, who is allegedly “spitting in the faces of Ukrainians and Georgians”. Putin even wondered whether there were “real Ukrainians” available in the country. Oh, snap. A lot of Russians don’t believe Ukraine deserves to be a state in the first place…
Yes, you have heard a lot about it. A German version of the ISA just featured a roundtable entitled: ‘Reclaiming the facts: analysis of international politics in the age of fake news and post-facts’. There has been a lot of panic over the new era of alternative facts. Let me assure you: fake news and post facts are not new. Social networks are not new. We all have seen and read about them before. And they are not only as American as George Washington’s cherry tree. They are old and they are universal.
Here’s an example.
Once upon a time, there was a bankrupt opportunist from a notable family who urgently needed cash to pay his financier. No, he didn’t run to the Russian oligarchs (they were hard to reach at that point in time); instead, he decided to avoid the debt by killing his banker in the middle of 5th avenue. When he was brought to court, his lawyer thought of a brilliant defense: instead of claiming that the accused was innocent, he went all the way to acknowledge the guilt of the criminal. The reason he killed the banker was allegedly his way to take revenge on the banker’s own nefarious deed of a child’s murder. The court was so baffled by this defense that the opportunist turned murderer walked free and the fake news about the boy’s murder assumed a life of its own. The year was 1150 and I am talking about the murder of William of Norwich, one of the first recorded accusations of ritual murder that still serves as an inspiration to Neo-Nazis and Anti-Semites around the world.
I am (sort of) on vacation and visiting the Motherland. In the meantime, I allowed myself a couple of days of couch potato mode that included some Russian TV. A political scientist in me is never on holiday so while flipping through some mainstream channels I made a little Russian TV digest for the Duck. I am not repeating Gary Steyngart’s experiment of watching Russian TV for a week at the Four Seasons, mostly because early career researchers don’t have money for 5* hotels and my mum cooks better than Michelin restaurants. Let’s skip the morning shows that, fortunately, don’t include the benefits of urine therapy anymore and just try to persuade Russian women to wear high heels otherwise they won’t find a man and will never be happy.
Footage of toppled Confederate statues all over cities in the US reminded me of the events my homeland went through a couple of decades ago and might go through again in some years. Some experts already compared the toppling of Confederate statues with “Leninopad” – razing of Lenin statues in Ukraine, but renaming streets and bringing down monuments was a la mode in newly independent Russia as well. Most Westerners might be familiar with the iconic footage of Felix Dzerzhinsky’s downfall in 1991 among the jubilant crowds gathered in front of the KGB building. The infamous founder of NKVD lost his base and never came back to the square in front of the now FSB. For the record though, my music school still has the Dzerzhinsky street address and his monument nearby sports fresh flowers every now and then. But I am from the Deep South that consistently voted for the Communist Party after the collapse of the Soviet Union until Putin managed to sway the electorate his way. That Dzerzhinsky is not going anywhere.
To understand the roots of the collusion, set aside Putin and follow the money.
In the endless pursuit of the Russia-Trump collusion story, we sometimes forget a key element: this whole mess began with money, not with election interference. The connections between Trump and Russia were forged years ago, well before he developed any serious political inspirations, and were focused on the shady schemes of Russian oligarchs and their dealings with Trump. Understanding the roots of the collusion means setting aside the usual narrative – Putin wants to destroy American democracy – and following the money first.
We all know the traditional narrative in International Relations of the state as a unitary act. Despite substantial volumes of work in the foreign policy analysis subdiscipline as well as in IR theory, the common shorthand in IR scholarship is to say ‘China’ did X or ‘Britain’ bombed Y. At least in the case of the United States, climate change is going to force scholars and analysts to seriously reconsider those assumptions. Continue reading